Interventions: handling common challenges

As an interviewer, we don’t want to be too controlling or directive, but we don’t want to let the interview go just anywhere either.

Managing an interview is like dancing with a partner. If you are the “leader” in a couple dance, you have to do many things at the same time. You need to both lead and be responsive to your partner. You have to know where the other couples are on the floor. You want to lead in a way that will allow your partner’s dancing skills to shine. And you want to communicate to your partner that you are enjoying your time together.

In an interview, you are like the leader in a dance. You have to know where this story is supposed to end us and guide it there. But you also have to be responsive to what your interviewee is saying. You have to communicate your interest in the conversation and in the interviewee. You have to keep track of the time. If you have 40 minutes for interview, then you know you must reach the end of the story in 10 minutes so that you have time to ask about reflections. And finally, you must keep tabs on whether the interview is getting you what you need. Is the interview on track? Are there characters, complexity, life in the story? If it is not, you must intervene.

Steering – and, if necessary, rescuing – an interview is a learned skill. But there are some good questioning strategies that you can use to handle common challenges. None of these will work all the time; some interviews simply can’t be salvaged. But these strategies will increase your chances of success.

Challenge: The interviewee launches into a side story that doesn’t seem  relevant to the practice story .

Challenge: The interviewee describes a program in the passive voice. There are no actors; things just happen. Or else, everything is done by a generic “we”; there is no “I” to tell you about the interviewee’s practice. 

Challenge: The interviewee continually shifts to other people’s actions, not their own.

Challenge: The interviewee is mostly telling you about generalities, abstract ideas, or broad programming components, leaving you with a story that doesn’t have many characters or much action. 

Challenge: The interviewee oversimplifies his/her work, makes the story less complex or less political than it actually was, or hides the relationship between what happened and who made it happen.

Challenge: The interviewee communicates an idea with body language, facial expression or by pointing, but doesn't articulate the idea in words.